Black Books and Red Wine

Black Books is a situation comedy (sitcom) following the lives of three twits who spend the majority of their time in the titular book store. It’s a British show, rife with British-styled humor (often confused with “unfunny”) and a number of references that have admittedly gone over my head, but I consumed it over the course of a few days and found a few things worth sharing.

As Stephen King put, and I cite this all the time, it’s characters that make the story, not the situations they find themselves in. A sitcom is as much a formula as it is anything else, to be sure, but the reasons any of us watch any of this stuff is to see how characters we’ve come to “know” react to various situations. To do that, we must know our characters.

Bernard, the owner of the titular bookshop. A veritable pessimist, hedonist, nihilist. A riot to watch, played by the comedian Dylan Moran, a man who beforehand I knew nothing about and after watching this show decided to go and dig up some of his standup. In Black Books, he plays a disheveled schmuck who lives in contempt of people and the world outside his bookshop, which – thanks to the magic of film – somehow remains in business. Rarely does a scene pass when he isn’t sipping from a wine glass or puffing at a cigarette.

Manny, the bookshop’s assistant, a mostly-good-natured and dull-minded fool, serves as a veritable sidekick who is almost constantly at odds with Bernard. Yet they have a fun relationship; Manny enjoys serving others and taking care of the place, while Bernard can barely dress himself in the morning.

Fran, the last major player, serves to provide the occasional feminine perspective on things, but is easily just as mad as the others. Sycophantic and selfish, she is also Bernard’s closest and possibly oldest friend. Early on she owns and runs a bric-a-brac shop next door to Bernard, but as the series progresses, her story follows silly events in her life separate from the other two.

The more Aussies and Brits I speak to, the more I find out how popular this show actually was. Recommended to me by an itinerant Tazmanian, turns out this short-lived series was quite well-received. To hear one friend put it, the show had a cult following, and granted I was undergoing the circus of indoctrination we call American Public High School around the time Black Books aired, so I was barely sentient at that time.

This’s an overseas production, and by overseas what I mean is non-American. The humor has a distinctly British flavor to it, mixed along with the canned laughter and occasionally formulaic antics of sit-com writing, but one thing this show really has going for it is the distinct lack of extendeditis (one of my biggest complaints about Breaking Bad).

Black Books ran for only sixteen 23ish-minute episodes, most of them bottled as might be expected, and much of the story has little to offer in terms of intriguing plot or storytelling — it’s comedy, and not that gripping stories can’t be comedic, but the majority of comedy is composed primarily of silly antics and impossible premises. I enjoyed it for what it was.

What I really wanted to talk about was the emphasis on the habits of the protagonists; there’s a lot of casual drinking and smoking going on here, something we would not expect in a typical American sit-com.

This can’t be anything exclusive; there must be many series with characters puffing on cigarettes and sipping glasses of wine. But as someone who almost never watches T.V., I found it intriguing how utterly casual it was to watch the main characters of a comedic sit-com draining bottles of wine and lighting up fags in every other scene.

Perhaps it is due to my being American that these things stand out so much, but one thing stood out to me even further.

The characters read. They sit and read books a lot.

And no, not those kind of black books.

Now, this might make logical sense. Two of the three characters live and work and a bookshop.

But when the last time you saw a character in an American sitcom just sitting and reading for reasons completely unrelated to the plot?

The Britishisms and foreign references I can deal with, but something that struck me was the often poetic and creative insults being used. I couldn’t say whether this is an effect coming directly from characters that spend a lot of time around books, or whether this is a common thing in British television, but it seems the vocabulary is noticeably — appreciably — elevated.

Maybe I just need to watch more T.V. shows to get a more well-rounded idea, but I’m inclined to think the chances of that are slim. This is merely my impression.

Besides that, what makes a cynical, smoking, drunken shouting Irishman with a penchant for violent outbursts so enjoyable — dare I say lovable? Even as I watched the antics in play, I could already imagine the legions of American fangirls (the same types who read and write fan-fiction about Snape) giggling so much that their combined vibrations could alter the course of next season’s tropical storm.

If you have the chance, give this series a try. It’s short and sweet and kinda makes you want to open a bookshop. And spend my days in a wine-induced haze of cynicism and scorn.

A most admirable life path.

Eight full wineglasses out of ten.



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